More Women Finding a Place in the House
By Juliet Eilperin
When a photographer asked Republican Conference Vice Chair Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) to make gestures before the camera last week, she quickly wove her fingers together and displayed her interlocking hands. "Literally, this is a gesture that signifies coming together, and people really like that," she explained.
Dunn, the highest-ranking woman in the House, is well aware of how gestures can win or lose votes. Charged by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) with making the GOP more attractive to female voters, Dunn is determined to craft the right message for the public. Her efforts will be on full display this week, as she convenes a three-day conference, the Republican Women Leaders Forum, aimed at energizing Republican women.
The conference comes just as women from both parties have gained an unprecedented number of seats in the House: 55, including two delegates. In the last few weeks alone, women swept three special elections in California: Lois Capps (D) and Mary Bono (R) replaced their late husbands and Barbara Lee (D) captured her former boss's position. Republicans have 16 women in the House, while Democrats boast 39.
Despite these electoral wins, some female lawmakers openly question whether they wield the kind of influence in Congress they did just a few years ago. And while women may disproportionately favor Democrats, female lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say Republican leaders are making more of an effort than Democrats are to reach out to women.
The imbalance between female lawmakers in the parties has created a complex dynamic for their effectiveness in the House.
"One of the problems women face in making a difference in Congress is while the majority of members are Republican, the majority of women are Democratic," said Debra Dodson, a senior research associate at the Center for the American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.
Yet, she said, "Republican women seem far more satisfied with the way the party has treated them and given them access to power compared to [Democratic] women when the Democrats were in power."
Ensconced in her tiny leadership office, Dunn is eager to explain how this week's conference will help reintroduce the GOP to female voters. Lawmakers will brief the audience on issues from education to Social Security, with an eye toward articulating a less-threatening program of reform. While women often back Republican positions in polls, Dunn said, their support drops dramatically when the GOP label is attached.
"It's sort of the brand name we need to change," Dunn said, in a mint-green room graced by silk flowers and a portrait of a black woman from a wealthy southern family. "What women are able to bring is a softer side of the conservative message."
In addition to touting this publicly, both Dunn and Republican Conference Secretary Deborah Pryce (Ohio) play a similar role inside closed leadership meetings. According to several Republicans who attend the meetings, the two women often chastise their male colleagues for using language that might frighten female voters.
In a conversation on the House floor, Dunn recently instructed Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) to "finish his sentence" when discussing cutting taxes, so women would know their favorite programs were not being slashed.
"Perhaps we're more sensitive to how deeply troubling our harsh rhetoric is to some people, especially women," Pryce said.
While Democrats concede that the GOP is making a concerted effort to showcase their female leaders, they argue that Republicans are merely responding to pressure from voters.
"The real issue is Republicans are recognizing the corner Democrats have on women and family issues," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "They're still not feminist. They're anti-feminist."
Other Democrats, however, argue that their party's leadership has yet to give female lawmakers their due.
"There's not been an inch of progress made that I can determine," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who lost a bitterly-contested battle to serve as ranking member on the House Budget Committee to Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) last year. "The party's taken the women's vote for granted. When you look at the Republicans, in comparison, it's really quite astounding."
Neither party has a woman as the top lawmaker on a committee, though women are getting more seats on powerful committees like Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Commerce. Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has appointed women to several posts in his expanded leadership group, while Gingrich has entrusted Pryce with such sensitive tasks as overseeing the House's tobacco and child-care legislation.
Pryce acknowledges that her party's top women are "spread very, very thin." To help ease that shortage, Pryce founded a political action committee VIEW PAC to aid female Republican candidates regardless of ideology.
In its first year, the PAC has raised nearly $80,000, largely through small donations from women in Washington's political and lobbying community. The PAC is headed by the National Republican Congressional Committee's former executive director, Maria Cino.
"It really comes down to women many times have not been able to come through the primary process because they're not well financed," Cino said.
While VIEW PAC is in its nascent stages, the abortion rights Democratic EMILY's List has already claimed two victories this year and is confident that Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky and Ohio Democrat Stephanie Tubbs Jones will win seats in Congress this year. These kinds of victories lay the groundwork for a contingent of senior legislators in the coming years, says EMILY's List President Ellen Malcolm.
"In Congress, there's not a lot of giving of power," Malcolm said. "Since women are relative newcomers in politics, it takes a while to move up to leadership positions."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company